Chinese real estate tycoon couple reject criticism of Harvard University donation

Husband-and-wife founders of Soho China say their US$15 million scholarship will help only Chinese students from poor families secure a place at prestigious United States university

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 7:00pm

The Chinese real estate tycoon couple who founded Soho China have brushed aside criticism of their donation to Harvard University by saying that it would be helping to fund only students from poor Chinese families.

Zhang Xin, chief executive of Soho China and her husband Pan Shiyi, the chairman, were caught up in controversy after they signed an agreement with the prestigious United States university to donate US$15 million (about HK$116 million) to set up a “Soho China Scholarship” to help Chinese students study at Harvard.

Some internet users questioned why the couple, who set up the prime office development company in 1995, did not donate the money to Chinese universities and accused them of “forgetting their roots”.

Zhang responded on her official Sina Weibo webpage, saying that the couple’s intention was to help more impoverished Chinese students go to top universities in the US.

“If Harvard has accepted you, being poor will no longer be a barrier,” Zhang said on Weibo yesterday.

She also said she had been angry to see so many critical comments online, but later had “laughed them off”.

Pan also posted a response to the criticisms on his Weibo webpage on Wednesday, saying that the fund would help only those students from poor Chinese families.

News of the couple’s donation to Harvard has sparked fierce online discussion on China’s social media.

While some internet users have applauded the couple’s initiative, others called the couple “traitors” – questioning why they had not directly donated money to impoverished families in the Chinese rural areas, where communities often lack basic teaching facilities.

Some internet users also asked how plausible it is for destitute students to secure places at Harvard.

“I only want to tell China’s entrepreneurs: think about children in China’s West,” one user posted on Weibo. “[They] don’t have enough food and have no shoes to wear in winter. For those students who study abroad, which of their families doesn’t have connections or money?”

In an earlier posting on her Weibo webpage, Zhang had revealed that she and her husband would donate money to other elite US universities, too.

“Harvard is the first university that we cooperated with,” Zhang said. “We are discussing with many universities.”

The couple are currently in America spending time visiting a number of top US universities, including Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, best known as MIT, as well as the headquarters of Apple and Facebook, posts on their Weibo pages showed.

Soho China was successfully listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on October 8, 2007.

In March the South China Morning Post reported that Soho China posted better-than-expected record earnings for the previous 12 months as its core net profit rose 33 per cent year-on year to 4.44 billion yuan (HK$5.6 billion).